The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

11 December 2005

The last word in OETA: Authority

This past summer I endorsed this prescription by Doc Searls:

Commercial radio and television have a huge (and problematic) split between customers (advertisers) and consumers (viewers and listeners). Yet, for some dumb reason (too many staffers coming over from the growing labor pool of laid-off commercial broadcast marketers?), public broadcasting has looked to commercial broadcasting as an ideal model. Rather than make it easier than ever for its consumers to become customers, and for its customers to become more involved with the stations, public broadcasting whored itself to underwriters and other "sponsors."

Maybe that's an unkind characterization, but there's a follow-the-money effect at work here. As dependence on federal money shrinks, commercial sponsors take up the slack. There is a natural drift of energy toward pleasing those advertisers (which is what they are), and away from customers that really matter: paying listeners and viewers. In other words, public broadcasting has been doing its best to behave like commercial broadcasting. Not helpful.

Regarding our own (so to speak) PBS facilities, Matt Deatherage notes:

OETA is rich because it turns the purpose of public broadcasting as upside-down as it can and still call itself "public broadcasting." OETA is rich because it made sure it wouldn't run programs giving progressive Oklahomans a voice if what they said might annoy people with deep pockets.

Of course, the most grievous problem with OETA is that it's an entity of the state, subject to legislative oversight, and legislators in this state are rather easily spooked (cf. "Scratching off Christmas"). I frankly don't see how we can expect any changes in OETA's practices unless it can be slid out from under the twitchy eye of government and into the control of a private foundation, the way most PBS affiliates nationwide are operated; the new service will still have to go hat in hand to donors, but at least it won't have to answer to 23rd and Lincoln.

Possible compromise: Let OETA continue to run the statewide network of LPTV translators and the two full-power outlets in Cheyenne and Eufaula, and spin off the Oklahoma City and Tulsa stations to local operators. The hard part, needless to say, is convincing the legislature that this would be a Good Thing.

Posted at 12:12 PM to Overmodulation , Soonerland

We already have the OETA Foundation. You link to me responding to a letter about a previous story, and in writing that story, I found out that the OETA Foundation already provides at least 1/6th of OETA's annual operating budget. A good few years of fundraising plus a commitment from the legislature (and the promise that the state wouldn't have to fund OETA on an ongoing basis) would be enough to take it private.

The problem then is that, like now, it would be responsible to the private donors, not to the people of Oklahoma. I suspect the Lege would be happy to "spin off" KETA and KOET, but that's because the GOP House would read that as "sell to Rupert Murdoch," which would certainly solve the problem of those stations occasionally threatening to present programs that aren't in tune with the Mighty Wurlitzer.

The trick is having real public television - being diverse, showing stories and programs that would never get commercial airtime, responsible only to the truth - without it being a political football. We saw what happened this year when a political appointee heading the CPB apparently broke the laws trying to make CPB produce slanted programming.

Laws that make public television programming unanswerable to politicians are their own disaster waiting to happen. I don't think we want to trade the current system for one where an OETA director puts on only fundamentalist Islamic programs until he's "impeached."

So I got no answers, but ending public television by selling it to the highest bidders, even on a station-by-station basis, ain't no answer either. :-(

Posted by: Matt at 6:06 PM on 11 December 2005

Kenneth Tomlinson, who is gone now, and very likely not missed by anyone in public-broadcasting circles.

Which leads to the question: Are OETA's donors overall that much more conservative than donors to other PBS stations?

Posted by: CGHill at 10:00 PM on 11 December 2005

I would submit that their political leanings are irrelevant on principle if their donations give them the ability to control programming. It would be nice if wealthy people used their money to benefit those without major public voices, but it rarely happens that way.

Posted by: Matt at 11:20 AM on 12 December 2005